This Sunday we think about the Annunciation of Mary and it perplexes me just as it perplexed Mary. But probably not for the same reason.
Mary is perplexed because an angel Comes and recognises her as the chosen one of God chosen to give birth to the one who will be recognised as God’s own son. The angel says, specifically; “ “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 3And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now that is quite a statement and quite an introduction. It is prophetic and deeply theological; it contains more than a modicum of messianic hope and just a little sense of the improbable. Mary is a young person from a small village who possibly had little education in terms of history and Jewish philosophy. Her theology was probably, at best, very thin and to get the whole kit and caboodle in two sentences is probably more than most theologians from reputable schools could deal with, let alone her.
Her response? She didn’t ask for clarification, references from the Torah or just a little sign that this was real and she wasn’t hallucinating. No. She simply says, very sensibly, how can this be, I’m a virgin. Seemed a good enough reply really and does raise a question for us about how we understand God working in the world.
Does God defy the natural course of life and events? Does God intervene in ways overruling or changing the natural laws of nature by which the world was created and populated? If God in fact created the world by the principles we know of as evolution why does or would God cast these aside just because he/she can?
Is this statement by Mary a statement she in fact would have made or is it an editorial statement to allow the myth of Jesus’s birth as supernatural to be embedded in the minds of people? These stories reflect the normal process of writing hagiographies of extraordinary people present in the ancient world in relation to other ‘god’s’ of other nations. People who like Jesus were so special and beyond the ordinary that their birth had to be just as supernatural and special, as if not more supernatural than their being and doing in the world.
Why would Mary really have said to the angel, I fully understand what you are saying but there is one problem, I haven’t had sex with anyone? And if she hadn’t had sex why did she say, without any argument; “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Was the explanation of the Angel about the operation of the Spirit an appropriate one to allow a powerless young girl to have been said to consent to have sex with God, the creator of the Universe?
While this is a wonderful story on one level, on another it is disturbing, especially in light of the actions of some with in the church as shown by the Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Child Abuse. The action of inappropriate power and the use of such power have been at the centre of many of the case histories reported to the Commission. Stories of those seen to be representatives of God who have had their way with children and others eerily reflect the imbalance in this story.
Mary is often lauded for her obedience and willingness to say yes but we rarely investigate the role of the Angel and of God in this story and ask ourselves if this was ok? Was it ok for the creator of the world to put the hard word on an innocent village girl? How does this work and does it give us in the church the right to use the power invested in us as the representatives of God in the world to get our way?
In the past, and even now, I suspect we do something similar. We decide who is suitable to be priests and, for many it does not include those who could have been the mother of Jesus; we decide who can be married, included and welcomed and we make those decisions for and on behalf of God in relation to those who have no power. We use people for our own purposes to justify the maintenance of privilege and safety, of cheap goods and low production costs; we run programs aimed at the poor to keep them poor so we can blame them for not getting the budget into surplus; and we keep the power. We always keep the power.
In the church we want our priests and clergy to lose their personalities and channel the Godhead in all our sacramental tasks; we design programs for children so that we can ‘capture’ them at an early age because some research somewhere says if we get them about 11 years of age we will keep them forever; we design programs for the future of the church and not the empowerment of people; and we keep the power. We always keep the power.
The story of the conception of Jesus is a conflicted story. Why because it embeds in the psyche of society the place of the powerless – women and children, refugees and aboriginals, LGBTQI people and more. What is that place? Those who do not have the power can be abused and acquired to maintain our beloved church. And we do.
And we are puzzled why a situation arose requiring an independent secular inquiry to hold up the mirror to the church so we can see ourselves as we are and always have been, focussed on ourselves and committed to keeping alive an institution based on privilege and power. It is not hard to understand that a story about a representative of God procuring a young girl for the procreation of the alleged saviour of the world has become the pro forma for all abuse past, present and yet to come.
The story of the conception is conflicted and, I suspect, written from the male point of view. I wish I could have sat with Mary and heard her unadulterated version; listened to her questions and the full conversation she had with the Angel; to have had the opportunity to fully understand how she maintained her centre and dignity and said yes; to have heard how she wasn’t the pliable innocent but a strong person who negotiated herself into a place of equity with God.
Because if this wasn’t the case, this story as Luke tells it, would have made a good case study at the Royal Commission, a case study to explain all the others.